Jazz Guitarists of the World

March 17, 2012 by  

Jimmy Gourley

I have been collecting jazz recordings, especially guitar, since the early 1970s, and have been extremely fortunate to be able to travel around the world, thanks to the US Air Force, and later thanks to my employer.

One of the first things I do when I go to a new city/country is seek out record/CD stores. I have probably visited the late, lamented Tower Records stores in London, Singapore, Dublin, and at least a dozen cities in the US. I spent the Christmas holidays in London in 2005/2006 and much of my time was spent hunting down obscure jazz recordings at HMV and Virgin Megastore locations on Oxford Street. I have somewhere in the area of 1300 CDs and 500 LPs.

Having traveled extensively, I have taken a much broader view of my favorite music, and probably have been exposed to many more players than the average fan might otherwise. I was even more fortunate to find a used CD store here in South Florida some years ago that was often visited by someone else who had a big jazz guitar CD habit, and traded many CDs of lesser-known players from Europe and elsewhere after he transferred them to cassette tape (!).

This mania was influenced by my uncle, the late Andy Nelson, probably best known as a clinician for Gibson and Epiphone from 1955-1965. He was an amazing player, and it’s not just me saying this. We would spend hours talking about music, and the players he knew as close friends–among them were Les Paul, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, and countless others. He even played for Django Reinhardt, who visited a small club in Chicago where Andy was playing, accompanied by friends Jimmy and Marian McPartland (Marian, now well into her 80s, still hosts National Public Radio’s Piano Jazz show), when Django toured the US with Duke Ellington in 1946. While I’m not a player myself, I do hope to someday (Andy called me the best musician he ever knew who couldn’t play). I have a nice old Gibson archtop that used to belong to my grandmother, that will the the subject of much abuse sometime in the future. I hope to write a larger piece about Andy in a future blog. My brother Guy could tell you a few stories, too… Sure miss that old guy. But I digress…

United Kingdom

Martin Taylor: Martin is a fine fingerstyle player. He first was heard by a wider audience when he toured, beginning in his late teens, with famed jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, where he learned to play the music of famed gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. He toured with Grappelli off and on for eleven years. Martin was also tutored and mentored by guitarist Ike Isaacs, who introduced him to Grappelli. Today, Martin Taylor has a number of CDs as leader, and mainly plays solo acoustic fingerstyle jazz guitar. This YouTube clip shows a young Martin Taylor at the top of his game.

Other British players include Dave Cliff, Gary Potter, Adrian Ingram, Andy Mackenzie, and the aforementioned Ike Isaacs.


Louis Stewart: Louis has worked with the greatest players in jazz, including stints with British pianist George Shearing and famed London jazz club owner, the late Ronnie Scott. He currently records on the German label Jardis, and has played in a duet setting with Martin Taylor and Jardis label owner Heiner Franz. Check out this YouTube video of Stewart playing at a small club in Dublin.


Django Reinhardt (1910-1953): A gypsy by birth, Django helped create a jazz identity that was not necessarily American in nature, instead often based upon his native folk tunes set to jazz rhythms and orchestrations, making him one of the most significant of all European jazz artists. A gifted guitarist, his fretting hand was badly injured in a fire, the result being that the last two fingers were mostly useless to playing due to scar tissue and muscle damage that bent them out of the way. He was able to work with this disability and the casual listener would never know he mainly only used his thumb and first two fingers. This rare video shows how little the handicap affected his playing. His group, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, was comprised of Reinhardt, two additional rhythm guitarists, a bassist, and violinist Stephane Grappelli, and recorded extensively in France and England from about 1934 to the onset of WWII in 1939. The group re-formed after the war, but Django, having heard the new sounds of bebop, brought in by visiting American servicemen and musicians, adapted his playing style and moved away from the prewar arrangements. He continued to explore and grow musically up to his death from a sudden stroke, in 1953.

There are any number of gypsy and gypsy-style players from France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, including Titi Winterstein, Ziroli Winterstein, Romane, The Rosenberg Trio, Angelo Debarre, Fapy Lafertin, Kussi Weiss, Tchan Tchou, Tchavolo Schmitt, and many others. American guitarists who play in that style include Frank Vignola, Pearl Django, Hot Club of San Francisco, Hot Club of Detroit, and the slightly more tongue in cheek Hot Club Sandwich.

Bireli Lagrene: Bireli came from a gypsy background, learning to play the guitar at a very young age. He made his first recording, “Routes to Django”, at age 14. His playing is of the very highest order and is one of the busiest players on the Continent. Check out YouTube.com and video.google.com, where you can see many clips of Bireli’s playing. One of the more amusing ones came from a Django festival in France about a year ago when he sat down to play with a very young player. This video is a record of the performance.

Jimmy Gourley: An American expatriate, Jimmy moved to France in the earlyu 1950s and remains a fixture in the Parisian jazz club scene. He played with most of the touring American jazz artists as they came through Europe. Toured the US several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This YouTube video shows Gourley on French TV in the 1960s.

Also worth a listen are Patrick Saussois and Philippe Petit.


Rene Thomas (1927-1975): Probably one of the most important European guitarists in the bebop genre. He continued to move forward musically, and was a major practitioner of post bop and free jazz.


Doug Raney: Doug is the son of famed American jazz guitarist Jimmy Raney, and has lived in Denmark for 25 years. He is a very skilled player, similar to the style of his late father, but with his own voice, too. He has played with the likes of late trumpeter Chet Baker, and many other visiting American performers, as well as countless European players. Recorded extensively on the Criss Cross and Steeplechase labels. One of my all-time favorite recordings is Chet Baker with Doug Raney, The Touch of Your Lips.


Heiner Franz: A former Lutheran minister, Heiner Franz chose jazz over the clergy in the early 1980s. He began performing in clubs throughout Germany. Due to the lack of interest by record labels of his playing and of jazz guitarists in general, Franz started his own label, Jardis, to promote himself and as time went on, many other European and American players, including the aforementioned Louis Stewart, Martin Taylor, and many others. He has since branched out to making custom jazz guitars at the rate of several per year, which are highly regarded by their players.


Ulf Wakenius: Mainly based in the US now, this gifted player has worked with the late bassist Ray Brown, as well as pianist Oscar Peterson. This Danish TV clip from YouTube is a great example of his virtuosity.


Terje Rypdahl: While not personally my cup of tea, Terje is an superb player, very much part of the free jazz movement.


Bruce Clarke: Great player and teacher. Did a lot of studio work in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as many club dates. Recorded extensively. In the last few years, created a superb six hour series for Australian radio on the history of jazz guitar that covered many of the world’s finest players–many of whom have probably never been heard in the US.


Oscar Aleman (1909-1980): Started his career in France, influenced heavily by Django Reinhardt’s playing, but soon developed his own voice, heavily tinged with rhythms and melodies of his native Argentina. Here’s a rare clip from YouTube.


American Greg Chako has performed extensively throughout Asia. He’s currently based in Japan, but has had extended gigs in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.